Written by Brig. Gen Kennard R. Wiggins, Jr. (DE ANG Ret)
Editor’s Forward: In the early 20th century, Mexico experienced a decade of political instability and civil strife among competing political factions. From 1915 – 1916, Pancho Villa and his supporters, termed “pistoleros,” executed a series of violent border raids against the United States, retaliating for the latter’s backing the opposing government of Venustiano Carranza. On March 19, 1916, Villa and his troops attacked the 13th US Cavalry near Columbus, New Mexico, and on June 18, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson called up the National Guard to address the increasing hostilities.
When violence broke out in 1916 along the Mexican border, Delaware men were among the first to answer the call. Delaware did not have a full regiment by Federal standards, so the Delaware troops went to New Mexico in July as two separate battalions of infantry. Much to the regret of the regiment’s senior officers, the regimental headquarters and band were not accepted for service. Action on the Mexican border mostly involved patrols and scouting activities; U. S. troops were also limited in their ability to pursue Villa because Carranza, who turned out to be a less than whole-hearted ally, forbid them from firing in situations where Mexican government troops could be injured.
The Delaware men trained and honed their skills in the desert. In his biennial report to Governor Charles Miller, dated December 31, 1916, Adjutant General I. P. Wickersham reported:
“…Two battalions of infantry, with the hospital detachment…are now in Federal service at Deming New Mexico, where they have been stationed since July 31 last (1916).
In accordance with your verbal order of September 21, I proceeded to Deming, New Mexico, reaching there on October 1 and found the troops in excellent health, well supplied and equipped, camp site and sanitary conditions excellent. The troops were undergoing an intensive military training, which I am pleased to say was indicated by their appearance both physical and military.
The troops have been on the border for five months and have performed their duty honestly and faithfully and without complaint, and it is hoped that they may be returned to their home stations in the near future….”
Pancho Villa was never captured, but U. S. troops put an end to the ongoing raids and secured the border. In 1917, as war with Germany became increasingly imminent, troops were withdrawn from Mexico. Although the duration of this conflict was short, Delaware’s soldiers, as well as the National Guard members from many other states, gained significant training in preparation for World War I.
Years later, older residents of Wilmington could still recall the memorable “welcome home” banquet at the Hotel DuPont in February 1917, the largest held in the city up to that time and one seldom equaled since then.
In a subsequent report to Governor John Townsend from December 1918, Adjutant General Wickersham reported:
The two battalions… arrived home on February 8, 1917 for muster out. The first battalion was ordered to Wilmington; the second…to Fort DuPont [Delaware City]. The work of mustering out these troops was completed on February 15th, after which they resumed their State status….These troops were reviewed by the Governor upon their arrival at Wilmington and made a splendid showing. After the review, both officers and men were entertained at dinner at the Hotel DuPont by the General Assembly, and in recognition of their services, each officer and man was presented with a medal provided by an act of the General Assembly.
Several men who received their first military training in the Delaware battalions ranks during the Mexican Border Wars went on to notable military careers, the most famous being Lt. Gen. John W. (Iron Mike) O’Daniel, who led the Third Infantry Division during World War II. Among other soldiers, two—J. A. Ellison and William Berl, Jr.—rose to the rank of Adjutant General of Delaware, and John P. LeFevre became a later commander of the Delaware Regiment.
Another prominent Delaware Guardsman who saw service in the Mexican Border Wars was First Sgt. Frederick Manion of Company F, one of the nation’s outstanding marksmen. He brought added laurels to the Delaware National Guard in 1916-1917 by placing second in the national military shooting championships with a high power rifle at Black Point Military Reservation near Jacksonville, Florida.
When the trains returned to Delaware in February 1917, the Delaware men must have been glad to be home and reunited with their families. Few of them realized that within a few months they would be back in service. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and entered the carnage of World War I.